Monday, November 19, 2018

GRAVE NEW WORLD OF XI, TRUMP

The avatars of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping aim at making China the leader of the world. They have almost reached their targets. Under Trumpavatar, the policy of America First has led to US withdrawal from global engagements, be it NATO or Trans Pacific Partnership, leaving the field open to an assertive China. For its part, Xiavatar has been pushing the Asia Infrastructure Bank and the Belt and Road strategy across continents while concentrating at home on military modernisation and advanced cyber technology. China's advances on the frontiers of science have been astonishing -- or frightening depending on the angle of vision.

To put this in perspective, recall the fact that Mao Zedong proclaimed the birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949, two years after India became independent. Mao's Cultural Revolution etc took China backward for nearly three decades. Its forward march began only in 1978 with Deng Xiaoping's reforms. That is, after India had gone through the prime ministerships of Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, and the Emergency backlash had put Morarji Desai in the prime ministerial chair. Such a late start, and where is China today? Such an early start, and where is India now?

China has reached the point where it is challenging the US for world leadership. Its official military budget for 2017 was $ 190 billion (US, $ 590 billion, India, $ 50 billion). Its focus is on science and technology in military research. A Scientific Research Steering Committee was set up last year in addition to the Academy of Military Science, the National Defence University and the National University of Defence Technology. R & D resources put emphasis on nuclear fusion, hypersonic technology and multipurpose satellites. The US Defence Secretary's office began its annual report on China in August with the sentence: "China has the political will and fiscal strength to sustain a steady increase in defence spending, supporting the continued modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and the exploration of new technologies with defence applications".

China ignores conventional ethics in its determination to be the leader of the world. For years now hundreds of Chinese have been going to American universities for higher studies. Most of them return to China to let the motherland benefit from their freshly acquired expertise in various subjects. There have also been reports of Chinese specialists "stealing" industrial secrets from American companies. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, some 2500 military scientists, researchers and engineers were sent in the last decade to western universities to conduct research, sometimes in areas like navigation technology, quantum physics and cryptography.

It is known that China has been investing heavily in AI (Artificial Intelligence) with plans to become the world leader in that sector by 2025. It has openly said that AI is a "strategic technology". It also puts emphasis on indigenous manufacture. Already it is turning out armed drones and a string of ultramodern weapons. An aircraft carrier has been commissioned. China has become the world's third largest exporter of arms, after the US and Russia. Until now, America was developing its military prowess to meet Russian challenge. Now the benchmark is Chinese challenge.

China thinks long term. More importantly, China thinks culturally and historically. For the US and Russia, for example, military planning is related to political and strategic oneupmanship. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. For China it has to be sufficient unto eternity. Communism or no communism, the historical memory of China's imperial overlordship with neighbouring states maintaining tributary relationship with it is alive. Imperial China considered itself the centre of the world. Times may have changed, but the notion of a superior destiny gives China an inner power other nations lack.

This is the context in which the extraordinary powers Xi Jinping acquired through constitutional changes must be judged. The 19th party congress last year gave him powers that only Mao had before. Significantly it was the same party congress that proclaimed something no party congress had done before -- that it was right for China to return to the days when China was the world's leading power in trade. This, from the Chinese viewpoint, is precisely what Xi Jinping is doing with determination. His assertion that the whole of South China Sea is China's backwaters bears the stamp of his power and of his readiness to take on the world. The task will be easier with the help he is receiving from the mixed-up, confused Donald Trump. Say hello to the Grave New World.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

WHY LET RELIGION DESTROY INDIA?

What's happening to our country? A huge and diverse land of 135 million people, 29 states and 22 scheduled languages, yet we are caught in a single obsession -- religion. All discussions, all decisions, all policies are shaped by religion. Sabarimala is on the edge of civil war. "Hindus are losing their patience", a Union Minister tells the Supreme Court after it postponed the Ayodhya case hearing. Uttar Pradesh changes Allahabad into Prayagraj. Soon Azamgarh will be Aryamgarh, Aligarh will be Harigarh, Muzaffarnagar will be Laxminagar, and Ahmedabad will be Karnavati. Will they become model cities as a result, all civic problems solved?

It's not that we don't have real issues bothering us. In fact we are immersed in issues that threaten us from multiple sides. The Reserve Bank is fighting the Finance Ministry. CBI, of all things, is sabotaging CBI. Breathing in the national capital has become more injurious to health than smoking. More and more youngsters are ending up jobless. Education has become a scandal. Not one Indian university is among the world's top 100. Indians are committing unbelievable crimes, like raping a 100-year old woman. Our food has largely become unfit for human consumption. No party talks about these subjects. Religion alone counts.

Food, the everyday food we eat, has become a threat. Chemical farming is so widespread that hardly any vegetable escapes residual dangers. Pesticides that are banned globally are used in India. Even endosulfan was supported by Ministers like Sharad Pawar despite the horrible deformations it caused in a generation of people. The "American way of farming" was introduced in Punjab in 1960s to usher in the Green Revolution. The result was the Cancer Train that left the farmers' town of Bathinda every night for Bikaner where treatment was more affordable. Overuse of pesticides turned the Green Revolution into a nightmare.

Did politicians do anything? Did people learn anything? Today farmers in several parts of Tamil Nadu use excessive pesticides on crops meant to go to neighbouring states, and less on portions meant for local consumption -- a version of parochial patriotism. Fish is preserved in chemicals used to keep human corpses from decaying too fast. According to UN reports, India ranks among the top countries whose agri-food products are rejected in the US and European Union. Indian exports are sent back because of the presence of microtoxins, microbial contamination, veterinary drug residue, heavy metals, unauthorised food additives, pesticides remnants and wrong product composition.

If our best is so often rejected by advanced countries, what would be the state of the food we keep for our own consumption? No wonder advanced countries export their worst to India. In 2008 as many as 35 large containers of hazardous American waste were found rotting in Tuticorin port for three years. Who allowed it to come there? Who kept it unattended for so long? How many made how much?

In 2003 Parliament went to the extent of banning Coca Cola and Pepsi from its canteens because of too much toxic pesticides. But there was no ban outside Parliament. That means, what was bad for MPs was okay for ordinary folks. MPs themselves lifted the ban after a while. The Coca Cola factory in Plachimada was closed because the waste fluids from it made neighbouring areas unfit for agriculture. But other factories in other cities continued. Before the power of lobbies, our policy makers bend their knees.

Colouring agents, among the most dangerous chemicals that go into food, are allowed free play. A look at Diwali halwas will show how colouring can even look unhealthy. Everybody knows that adulterants are used widely -- saw dust (in chilli powder), coal tar (in tea), dyes (in turmeric, green chillies, apples). Most colour enhancing dyes are highly carcinogenic. In responsibly governed countries these problems are contained. In Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, the authorities ensure that street food is not only clean but good enough to be a tourist attraction.

If others can do these things, why can't we? Because we are obsessed with religion and its politics. Nothing else matters. In Madhya Pradesh five sadhus were appointed ministers of state. Union Minister Giriraj Singh warned Muslims of "consequences" if they did not support Ram Mandir. As the distinguished novelist Mukundan said: There are no humans in India any longer, only Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Dalits. We have turned religion, meant to be a positive force, into a destructive idea. We spread hatred, attack others, lynch people in the name of God. No God will forgive us.



Monday, November 5, 2018

BURDEN OF BEING ALWAYS RIGHT


Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has the advantage of knowing that he is always right. Reserve Bank Governor Urjit Patel has taken his own time to learn that. Which is Patel's problem. He started out as Jaitley's handpicked man to replace Raghuram Rajan who simply had to go as Arvind Panagariya had to go and Arvind Subramaniam had to go. The international celebrity that he was, Rajan thought he knew banking and finance a tad better than the Finance Minister whose foundation, after all, was in law. But he forgot that the Minister was a politician, and politicians are wizards in all subjects from finance to rocket science.

Urjit Patel functioned obediently in the early days. When the country reeled under the impact of the half-baked, hastily implemented demonetisation two years ago, Patel became the target of attack by harassed citizens. The attacks grew harsher as ATMs failed as did RBI guidelines to restore some order. Patel bore the brunt of people's wrath. The Reserve Bank was called the Reverse Bank.

The first sign of the RBI Governor trying to regain his reputation was the bank's annual report a few months ago which showed that 99.3 percent of the banned currency had returned, thus putting an official stamp on the failure of demonetisation. Patel took another bold step when he asked banks to restructure their non-performing assets or initiate insolvency proceedings against borrowers, a move that could embarrass the Government which has distinguished borrowers among its friends. The RBI has also been taking a stand against banks that have been in the news for the wrong reasons though its hands seem to be tied in some cases (ICICI, for example).

The question now is not whether the RBI Governor has caused displeasure in the Finance Ministry, but how deep-going is the displeasure. Disagreements had fanned speculation about the Ministry imposing a section of the RBI Act that would make the Bank subservient to the Government. Adding fuel to the fire was a speech by RBI Deputy Governor Viral Acharya that went viral. He warned: "Governments that do not respect central bank independence will sooner or later incur the wrath of financial markets and ignite economic fire". Even the General Secretary of the Reserve Bank Employees' Association indicated the way the wind was blowing inside the venerable institution when he said there must have been pressing reasons for Acharya to say what he said publicly.

The words of the Finance Minister, however, leave no scope for debate: The RBI is at fault and has been at fault for a long time. When the previous Congress-led Government allowed indiscriminate lending by banks, he said, the RBI failed to check it. "It was a regulator but it kept pushing the truth below the carpet", as Mr Jaitley put it.

Mr Jaitley has two powerful qualities that lend strength to his assertions: His conviction and his concern with only the facts he mentions; other facts do not exist or are a political conspiracy. A parliamentary committee reported in August that non-performing assets went up by Rs 6.2 lakh crore between March 2015 and March 2016, forcing the Government to provide public sector banks with Rs 5.1 lakh crore. Is that truth above or below the carpet?

What happened under the BJP Government happened under the Congress Government as well, showing the non-alignment of the powerful. Raghuram Rajan said in his 2017 book that large numbers of bad loans originated in 2006-2008 when too many of them "were made to well-connected promoters who have a history of defaulting on their loans". The lesson which will not surprise citizens, is that it doesn't matter who governs, plundering will go on.

Mr Jaitley doesn't like anyone to disagree with him. So he let it be known that he wanted the RBI under stronger government control. Clashes between the political order and the central bank are a familiar thing the world over. But always wisdom has prevailed, governments leaving the central banks effectively autonomous. This time also wisdom must prevail.

To achieve that end, it will be helpful if Mr Jaitley shows a wee bit more respect to people with different views, not unusual in a democracy. Assertions by an RBI Governor need not necessarily be seen as anti-democratic. A former BJP finance minister need not be dismissed as "a job applicant at 80". The leader of the main opposition party need not be called a "clown prince". Arun Jaitley is of course always right. But should it mean that all others are always wrong?

Monday, October 29, 2018

THE STATE AS A CONSPIRACY?


As chief ministers go, K.Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) is in a class of his own. He is known as an effective speaker and he is a good tactician. These were factors in the success of his mission to carve Telangana out of the original Andhra Pradesh. His decision to dissolve the assembly and go for an early test at the hustings was a smart move from his point of view. He is a man of ability and therefore, if he wins, he can do much good for the country. To do that, however, he must pay attention to at least three areas where a new approach will be essential.

The first is the I-Me-Myself style in which he handles his party, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti. He is the boss of course, but flaunting bossdom reduces one's stature. He doesn't really consult any one in the party. Advancing the election was an example of this. No one knew what he was planning. Without even waiting for an election notification, he announced 105 candidates, to their surprise.

Some may interpret this as a strategic masterstroke in that he struck before the opposition parties had time to realise what was happening. But the cost of such tactics is high. When all decisions are handed down from the Abode of Shiva as it were, discontent is inevitable across the board. Protests did rise this time from a few of his followers. Critics from other parties described him as "monarch, autocrat and despot".

The second area where KCR would benefit from a new approach is his habit of extending his religious beliefs into the public domain. As Chief Minister, he boycotted the state's administrative headquarters where the chief minister's office is situated for reasons of vaastu and improper designs in terms of setbacks and exit points. He built a new vaastu-compliant home-cum-secretariat structure sprawling over one-lakh square feet of living space on a 9-acre estate costing Rs 36 crore.

There is nothing wrong in having faith in vaastu or fixing programmes as per astrological rules. But the state's treasury cannot be used to foot the expenses when a chief minister desires to "fulfil his vow" and present gold ornaments to various gods. KCR travelled with his family in helicopters and chartered flights to make his offerings. In Tirumala alone the gold offered was worth Rs 5 crore. He said of course that all expenses were met from his personal funds and bank loans.

The third area where KCR should have second thoughts is the language he uses. He recently described Rahul Gandhi as the country's "biggest buffoon". He called Chandrababu Naidu a lizard, said that Naidu had a "thief's look" and was neechaa neechamaina (meanest of the meanest) chief minister in the country. He said his party would "drag Sonia Gandhi to bazaar". And so on and on.

Such remarks do get cheap applause from street crowds. But KCR should ponder over the fact that his abuse of Sonia Gandhi met with disapproval from his own rank and file. He is a man who holds a constitutional position. In our constitutional system, even enemies call one another "The honourable" inside the legislature. By observing basic rules of decency in public discourse, a leader will only enhance his stature. Likewise, abandonment of decency will only diminish him.

There is something almost visceral about KCR's hatred of Andhra Pradesh. He was once quoted as saying that he didn't want to be associated with anything that had an Andhra lineage. This is like one of a conjoined twins saying that he doesn't want to touch the other. Not all KCR's oratorical powers and temple offerings can nullify geography. In fact he should be grateful for what he has already got. Nizam's Hyderabad comprised a piece of Maharashtra (Marathwada), a piece of Karnataka (still known as Hyderabad Karnataka) and a piece of Teluguland called Telangana. Only Telangana succeeded in becoming a state on its own. A wise leader will rejoice in this and collaborate with the conjoined twin.

The Scottish independence movement has been a powerful one for decades. There is a separate Scottish Government headed by a First Minister. But when a referendum took place four years ago, 55 percent of the population voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Geography prevailed. KCR will become a greater leader if he realises that he has only two options -- either to accept geographical reality and cooperate with his neighbours, or prove that Tolstoy was right when he said: The state is a conspiracy.



Monday, October 22, 2018

A CROWN PRINCE WARNS THE WORLD


Saudi Arabia's attempts to play innocent in the murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi flopped from the start. Even Saudi supporter Donald Trump, initially expressed dismay and called for "severe punishment" if Khashoggi was killed. In turn Saudi Arabia's effective ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) threatened to "respond to any action with a bigger one".

Threats will not erase the damage already suffered by MbS and his country. Revulsion across the world at Khashoggi's disappearance in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul led to protests by a number of independent agencies. A prestige MbS project, Vision 2030, suddenly saw many of its sponsors pulling out, among them World Bank, New York Times, Financial Times, The Economist, CNN, LA Times, Huffington Post, Viacom, JP Morgan, Ford. The Economist rubbed it in by underlining MbS's "brutish handling of even mild critics" and saying that his regime has started "to resemble an Arab nationalist dictatorship".

According to officials in Turkey, Khashoggi was done in by a 15-man Saudi squad, his body cut up and disposed of. The world believed the horror story because it fitted into the profile the Saudi power-wielder had acquired in just a couple of years. A liberal gesture here and there -- like allowing women to drive cars in the country -- did not hide the dictatorial streak in him. Quite a few fellow royals and business leaders have been imprisoned. Some have fled. Dozens of activists and writers have been arrested and tortured.

The war in Yemen, a one-man decision by him, is still going on, described by the UN as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis". Equally clumsy was the blunder of trying to boycott Qatar simply because it wouldn't declare Iran as an enemy. The biggest show of arrogance was the "arrest" of Lebanon's prime minister on a visit to Jeddah in 2017. That was part of MbS's idea of keeping Lebanon under his control.

When a German minister referred to Saudi war in Yemen as "adventurism", MbS went into a rage, recalled the ambassador to Berlin and closed down German trade deals with Saudis. The loss of business forced Germany to go down on its knees. When Canada's foreign minister tweeted for the release of human rights activists in Saudi Arabia, the Canadian ambassador was expelled, Saudi flights to Canada were shut down and Saudi students in Canada were asked to return.

This kind of over-reaction raised the question whether MbS, even as he sits on a powerful throne, is suffering from an insecurity complex. Perhaps he is haunted by the fact that he is an out-of-turn promotee in the royal hierarchy. Perhaps he is also bothered by the thought that the notion of "royalty" itself belongs to the past, especially after the Arab Spring saw anti-government uprisings and armed rebellions across the Middle East in 2011.

The Saudi royal family was not royal to begin with. Founder Ibn Saud was a tribal sheikh who was driven out of his home base in the Riyadh area of the peninsula in 1890. It took him a decade of fighting to subdue the tribes around his lost territory and another decade to consolidate his position. He turned out to be a master of political intrigue. He struck deals with the British, a prominent presence in the area at the time, and entered into an agreement with the fundamentalist religious doctrine of Wahabism thereby gaining a powerful, if controversial, pillar of support and a leadership position in the propagation of Islam.

Ibn Saud was considered an affable man with an undisguised talent to enjoy life. He visited India in 1955 and won a lot of hearts by distributing bundles of currency notes to passersby. He had a famous meeting with US President Roosevelt on an American warship near the Mediterranean. The King went on board with not only bodyguards, cooks and slaves but also astrologers, a fortune teller and some sheep. He told a British official rather lightheartedly that he had "married no fewer than 135 virgins". He had 43 acknowledged sons and 55 daughters. People liked him.

People don't seem to like Mohammed bin Salman. His tendency to be a law unto himself marked him out as a leader other countries were cautious about. Khashoggi's disappearance merely brought out the world's reservations about him in sharper focus. Saudi authorities have been busy with inquiries which no doubt will absolve them of any responsibility in the murder. But the world is unlikely to be impressed. MbS has lost more than he has gained.